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Reading Mahler:  German Culture and Jewish Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. Carl Niekerk.  Rochester, NY:  Camden House, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-5711-3467-7

Reviewed by John J. SheinbaumReading Mahler

For a composer once considered to be on the margins of the Germanic symphonic tradition, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) now enjoys an enormous discography, an ever-expanding corpus of biographical and musicological scholarship, and nothing short of a cult of followers ready to discuss and debate any detail that might suggest new paths to interpreting his lengthy and emotionally involving works.[1]  Carl Niekerk’s Reading Mahler is a notable addition to the composer’s bibliography because it counters conventional images of Mahler as a “nostalgic modernist” or a “neoromanticist” derived from the first-person recollections of the composer’s wife, Alma, and the conductor Bruno Walter. Niekerk instead places Mahler at the head of the “avant-garde” generation of composers that followed (212).  This is a Mahler concerned with nothing less than “reinventing the German cultural tradition” in a way distinct from the nationalist models most closely associated with the influential anti-Semitic opera composer Richard Wagner (218).  For Niekerk, then, Mahler’s “Jewishness is of importance, even though he said little about it in public” (12), and even though it plays little more than a background role in philosopher Theodor Adorno’s essential monograph on the composer.[2]  His reconsideration of Mahler thus encompasses much more than musical issues per se.  Niekerk aims to place Mahler securely within the intellectual context of his time by focusing on the texts that may have been formative in his thinking, and that often played direct roles in the construction of his songs and symphonies. Read the rest of this entry »

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